(Originally aired 2023/04/15 - listen here)
It’s never too late and you’re never too old. Well, at least in fictional romances.
This month we’re doing another installment in the favorite tropes series, looking at second-chance romances and older protagonists. The two don’t automatically go together. Second chances can happen at any age. But the two themes felt like they’d pair well together, sort of like caramel and salt.
A trope, in fiction, is a conventional story element that is used regularly enough that it carries a whole context of meaning, and connects the story to other works that employ the same trope. The trope could be a character type, a specific situation, or a plot element. This series is looking at how many popular tropes in historic romance work differently for female couples than for other types of couples, as well as looking at how specific historic contexts affect the trope, or how they play out differently than in contemporary romance.
To some extent second chances and older protagonists aren’t affected as much by era, setting, and gender as some other tropes. They don’t necessarily have to awkwardly work around finding analogies for heteronormative structures, the way that marriage-based tropes do. But there are still nuances where gender is relevant.
The “second chance” trope typically has the following structure. The protagonists have had some sort of close personal relationship at an earlier point in their lives. It might have been romantic, but it might have been platonic friendship, or a once-sided romantic interest. In any event, it did not at that time develop into an acknowledged, mutual, romantic relationship. Or if it did, something happened and the relationship was broken. Now the characters have been brought together again and a romantic spark develops that successfully produces a long-term romantic relationship.
Within that general framework, there can be a lot of variation. Perhaps they were lovers but something prevented them from establishing a permanent relationship or broke up the one they had. Perhaps there was romantic interest on one or both sides, but circumstances either got in the way of expressing that interest, or got in the way of converting interest into a relationship. Generally “second chance” isn’t used as a label for something that fits better into “friends to lovers” even if there is a hiatus in the friendship, so let’s stick to situations in which at least one participant experienced romantic feelings the first time around.
The trope of older protagonists exists mostly in contrast to the default expectation that romance is a young person’s game. Numerically, the majority of romance novels focus on younger protagonists and the throes of first love. So the older protagonist isn’t quite so much a trope as it is a demographic. Stories using this theme will include considerations of the past experience of the characters – or the reasons why they have no past experience of romance. Stories may be shaped by the different expectations that people have going into a relationship later in life, such as less expectation that the relationship will produce children (and perhaps the existence of adult children as secondary characters in the story).
But these are considerations that exist regardless of the gender of the couple. So what additional factors come into play for female couples?
Second Chances for Sapphic Romances
I have to say that second-chance romances are a really great fit for sapphic historicals. One of the regular themes in exploring how sapphic romances can play out in historic settings is the question of resisting social and economic pressures to buy into the standard heterosexual marriage plot. Those pressures were significant, even if they weren’t as overwhelming as people sometimes believe them to be. When a woman has passed through the period of her life when those pressures are at their greatest, there can be more opportunity to explore and embrace other options, such as a same-gender romance.
The pressure to follow a normative life path can come in many forms. Perhaps the most insidious is simply not presenting same-gender romance as a possible option. Some cultures had established concepts for establishing a long-term same-gender romantic partnership but far from all of them. So young women who fell in love with each other may not have had a model for what such a relationship could look like. Or they may have been taught to view all same-gender feelings as platonic rather than romantic. It can take more life experience and time to develop emotionally before one is willing to challenge those attitudes, either in oneself or in society. There’s great potential for missed chances if one or both of the characters is hesitant to express what they’re feeling, either from general shyness or lack of confidence, or because they aren’t sure how those feelings would be received or understood. Or, conversely, one character may express an interest in a permanent romantic relationship, but the other character doesn’t understand because they have no framework for it.
Even cultures that recognized and accepted same-gender emotional bonds often treated them as a separate sphere from the relationships that shaped one’s life path. The romantic feelings that two young women experienced might not be considered a reason to avoid heterosexual marriage. Alternately, economic pressures of employment or family needs might be the barrier to establishing a permanent bond between two women, just as it could be a barrier for other types of couples. One of the features of second-chance romances is that the specific reasons why the “first chance” didn’t work out don’t need to be gender-based.
We can see examples of opportunities for second-chance romance play out in the lives of both historic and fictional women, regardless of whether the specific pairs were romantically involved.
In the 4th century Greek novel The Acts of Xanthippe and Polyxena, there is something of a “Perils of Pauline” plot in which Xanthippe’s beloved young protégé Polyxena is abducted and goes through many adventures before being finally reunited with (and brought back to life by) her beloved.
Although Xanthippe and Polyxena are presented in the context of a Christian martyrdom story, the plot full of perils that separates a romantic couple is common in early Greek novels, such as the Babyloniaka in which one woman gets tangled up in the main story due to her resemblance to the primary heroine, and therefore is abducted from her girlfriend, Berenice, queen of Egypt, with whom she is eventually reunited.
There’s a 16th century example I found – I think 16th century, I’m having trouble finding the source article – that traced a pair of working class single women in London who set up a business together, but then were separated when they fell on hard times and needed charitable assistance, and later were back in business together. Even when women are economically independent of marriage, there may still be forces that become barriers when there’s no formal structure like marriage to bind their lives together. Migration to find work could split up a couple (or put a damper on a developing relationship).
A rare first-person account from a 17th century Iranian widow describes how, during her travels after the death of her husband, she is reunited with the woman she established a “sworn sisterhood” with in their youth, but from whom she had been parted for unspecified reasons (though marriage may have been reason enough).
The 18th century trial record of a cross-dressing woman details her relationship with anther woman, whose marriage (when passing as a man) was disrupted by a wide variety of factors: family objections, poverty, travel for employment, and personal conflicts. Theirs was not a particularly happy love story, but the dynamics of meeting, couplehood, separation, and reunion could be adapted for one.
The biographies of romantic friends in the 18th and 19th centuries are full of stories of family circumstance where the couple desires to live together, but one (or both) is responsible to care for a parent or family member and so the desired outcome is postponed. But often it was these very family duties that kept the women unmarried. One typical example is the life of Anna Seward whose known romantic relationships were all with women, and who escaped marriage (but also perhaps was hindered in how she expressed her romantic feelings) by being responsible for caring for her disabled father. One of her loves was for Honora Sneyd who joined their household when both were children, but Honora broke her heart by marrying. By the time Anna’s father died, leaving her a comfortable income, Honora had also passed, leaving the possibility of an eventual second chance to the realm of fiction.
Family duties were also the nominal hindrance to a romantic partnership between Anne Lister and Isabella Norcliffe, though by the time that was no longer an issue, Lister was no longer interested. The life of Anne Lister in the late 18th and early 19th century offers several models for second-chance stories, although she didn’t tend to let barriers to a dedicated relationship get in the way of an ongoing sexual relationship. Lister’s long-term devotion to Marianne Belcombe was blocked by Marianne’s decision to marry. They talked repeatedly about being able to live together some day if her husband died. That potential second chance never occurred and Lister had moved on.
19th century actress Charlotte Cushman had the right scenario for a second-chance story with her first girlfriend Rosalie Sully, who was left behind in New York when Cushman went to expand her theatrical career in England. But, alas, Rosalie died before Cushman returned from her extended tour.
Marriage could be a common reason for women who were devoted to each other to need to delay setting up as a couple. One late 19th century second-chance biography is that of Rose Cleveland (sister of President Grover Cleveland) who developed a passionate relationship with the widowed Evangeline Simpson. They exchanged love letters and traveled together, but Evangeline succumbed to social pressures and married again, which caused a break between the two. Only after the death of Evangeline’s second husband did she and Rose make arrangements to combine their households and share the rest of their lives.
These historic examples probably focus a bit too much on the situations that are unique to female couples. But almost any reason for needing a second chance that apples to other types of couples will work for female couples. Simple misunderstandings. Relocation for family reasons or due to work. Schoolgirl romances can be a good starting point. Drifting apart due to different goals and priorities. Pursuing a different relationship that didn’t work out. Or simply not having been ready for a serious romantic relationship at the time you were originally together. The beauty of this trope is that it doesn’t have to be about being queer.
If you notice a pattern in some of the historic examples above where the reunion (or potential reunion) between the women happens later in life when their responsibilities to parents, husbands, and/or children are left behind, then maybe you understand why I paired second chances with older protagonists for this episode.
Many of the social barriers to women sharing their lives together fall away with age, whether it’s a matter of no longer being responsible for other people, or no longer being subject to expectations regarding reproduction, or simply accumulating a sufficient supply of don’t-give-a-fuck. I’ve already discussed these factors in greater detail in the trope episodes about spinsters and widows, so I won’t rehash them all now.
Not all widows are older. And in the ages when becoming a spinster was a relevant concept, the age at which one was considered on the shelf could be anywhere between 20 to 30-ish, depending on the normative age of marriage. So a consideration of older protagonists isn’t simply a question of being free of other expectations, but of other aspects that come with age.
Non-married older women come in all economic flavors, each with its own considerations. As I discussed in the episode on widows, if you want to give your heroine substantial financial resources that she has control over, making her a widow is your best bet. But for those older women less comfortably situated, they will likely either be living with family, or will be looking for opportunities to stabilize their finances, perhaps by sharing living quarters with others, perhaps by leveraging any property they own by letting rooms, or at last resort by taking on employment that includes room and board. All of these have considerations for potential romantic possibilities and arrangements. (Keep in mind that, in pre-modern times, literally living all by yourself was not practical, and generally went along with extreme poverty.)
Regardless of the details, your older protagonist may be thinking about security. Or she may be thinking about doing things she didn’t have the time and freedom for previously. Or she may be having religious concerns about the end of life. Does she have a large network of friends and relations, built up over decades of adulthood? Or does she find herself alone and abandoned, looking for security? Has she already been everywhere and seen everything and is ready to settle into retirement? Or does she get a wild hair to go on pilgrimage or become a world traveler? What is her health situation like? Has life broken her down or made her a tough old bird? If your character has gone through menopause, do the hormonal changes affect her attitude toward the place of sex within a relationship? What experiences has she accumulated across her life that inform her attitude toward love and sex between women? Has her attitude changed from what it would have been when she was younger. This, too, can be part of the “second chance” dynamics. For that matter, has society changed during her lifetime in ways that affect her seizing a second chance?
In many ways, the differences in romantic possibilities for older women are very different depending on the gender of the potential partner. In historic records you often find women who are past childbearing age viewing male suitors as primarily looking for a housekeeper, nurse, or governess for their existing children. Outside of romance novels, the attractions of marriage for the older woman can be a bit thin on the ground.
And when it comes down to it, is there anything quite as attractive as a woman who has seen it all, been there and done that, has no more fucks to give, and is ready to embrace her own desires fully? Build your older romance heroine around that. And just maybe there’s someone from her past waiting in the wings to be given a second chance.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online